A pioneer rooted in the real world

With a sharp eye on everyday professional practice, Ted Wragg knew there were no easy answers in teaching, writes Tim Brighouse

It has been said that greatness comes in three ways: some people are born to it; some have it thrust upon them; but the few in education who deserve the soubriquet usually achieve it. Ted Wragg was one.

His greatness is built on a love of research. His earliest attempt at this may have set the scene for his ultimate field of enquiry: the teacher, pupil, classroom and curriculum, and the subtle influences that combine and affect their interactions and outcomes.

As a 16-year-old studying poetry in a Sheffield school, he argued to his peers that they could not appreciate the poetic expressions of what were essentially adult experiences. To prove this, he presented two poems in the style of Gerard Manley Hopkins - one supposedly genuine, the other created by him. He saw his theory as provisionally sound when all his peers chose one or the other as genuine. In fact, Ted Wragg had written both.

His first-class mind and modern languages degree nearly lured him into a PhD in German particles, but then his tutor asked after his real interest.

On hearing it was "what people did and why they did it", he advised the young researcher: "Teach first and research later." In fact, he combined the two for the rest of his life. His theories were always based on thousands of closely observed and recorded lessons, tempered by his teaching and interaction with primary and secondary children.

He became a largely self-taught expert in quantitative and qualitative reearch and mastered the subtleties of cluster analysis, canonical correlations and multivariate analysis of variance, as well as the basics of psychology and sociology.

At first his methods were mostly quantitative but he later developed case studies which provided many tales for classroom practitioners, whom he saw as his main audience and respected deeply. And here was the key to his influence: he appeals to teachers because what he finds rings true to the complexity of their practice.

Experienced teachers know the fragility of successful teaching: what works on 99 occasions fails on the 100th. The reasons why not are complex, and Wragg has gone further than most towards an explanation of this phenomenon.

His early work focused on the general differences trainee teachers made on pupils according to how they entered the classroom, their dispositions and techniques. But he soon moved on to study the full gamut of professional experience. His first book, Teaching, Teaching (1974), set the tone for his life's work. Rather than tell teachers what to do, he encouraged the novice and experienced to look closely at daily phenomena.

Analysing interactions, videoing teachers at work, studying individual and group work, evaluating the curriculum, and indeed devising one's own - all were part of his theory of educational improvement.

Ten years later, Classroom Teaching Skills took our understanding of these subtleties further. Then, in Primary Classroom Skills (1993), he returned to the same issues, bringing the same bright light of his insight.

By then his appetite for research had extended into the wider teaching environment, often with unintended outcomes. From the early to mid-1980s, his reach and grasp took in the growing number of national initiatives; in teacher appraisal, performance-related pay, literacy and the national curriculum. He mistrusted all of these, not through prejudice but because of the evidence of his earlier research into what makes a difference in the classroom.

He became a protesting voice of sanity and established a singularity among various researchers who contributed similarly to our knowledge of teachers and learners. He was the first to acknowledge this, but none did so as extensively across the phases - from nursery, through primary and secondary and into higher education. Nate Gage in the United States and Neville Bennett and Maurice Galton in the UK were all peers and significant colleagues at one time or another.

However, Ted Wragg, an outstanding researcher, became a great educator for another reason: he was a brilliant communicator, and at times his uncomfortable evidence penetrated the authoritarian defences and punctured the prescriptions of Conservative and Labour governments. His voice reached the classroom in a way that theirs did not. He wrote brilliantly and ceaselessly - sometimes polemically, sometimes seriously, always persuasively. Each week, this newspaper bore testimony to the breadth of his influence and to his prodigious capacity for sustained hard work.

In the media, he would appear on television, be heard on the radio or read in the Guardian and the Independent with similar regularity. In no other field has a top-quality researcher communicated simultaneously and so successfully with such a wide audience: with the profession, parents, the public and the national politicians who couldn't and didn't ignore him.

Their simplistic, often labour-intensive solutions - one year the literacy hour, the next synthetic phonics - varied with fashion. His - that education was more about subtle variations on the theme of finding the right questions with the right material and context, as well as with the cognitive social and emotional development of learners and teachers - did not.

Probably because they were closer to the classroom, he felt more rapport with local politicians, and they with him. His contribution to the pattern and nature of schooling in Exeter and Birmingham was significant, and each year he gave dozens of workshops for teachers, spoke at conferences, taught in classrooms and, like the good teacher that fascinated him, he never forgot a face, broke a promise or failed to go the extra mile.

Of course, some of this will fade in time, but not his writing. One piece of his research catches the complexity which fascinated him. It is an account of the literacy progress among seven-year-olds. One girl, Eva, starts with a reading age of 102 and ends the year with one of 134. Another boy, Jack, slips during the same period from 125 to 100. Is it the teacher? It might be. But they were both in the same class with the same accomplished and lively teacher. Is it the home? Maybe. But the research shows there are no easy answers, only infinitely layered and complex questions to unravel.

Politicians and educational administrators have no time for that - they want answers now. So, too, do teachers, but they know their task is messier and more complicated. That is why they listened to Ted Wragg and will do so for generations to come until some other researcher stands on his shoulders and is a similarly blessed communicator.

In the meantime, thousands of Evas and Jacks will make more progress as a result of his work.

What Ted said...

* The limitations of research

"If the same amount of cash and researcher time had been applied to the study of teachers' and learners' strategies as has been devoted to gene mapping, we might be a little closer to a true science of teaching. Even if there were vastly more banks of knowledge available, however, about the effects of every conceivable pedagogical move on every known type of learner, it would still be inadvisable to try to prescribe to teachers exactly what they should do in the face of every single eventuality."

* Teachers

"Remember also that teaching is a social gene. In the second half of your career, as in the first, you will spread knowledge and skills that have taken the human race thousands of years to acquire. There is no higher calling. Without teachers, society would slide back into primitive squalor."

* Research method and priority

"Children consistently rate 'explaining' as the professional skill they value most. So although... have done exactly the same 'research into practice' exercise with topics like 'class management' and 'questioning', I have always regarded my work on 'explaining' as the most significant."

* The limitations of policy and politicians

"Although I have increasingly looked at policy and practice, my major focus has always remained inside the classroom and school. Indeed, I find many aspects of policy and the chicanery that some politicians bring to its implementation and evaluation extremely irksome."

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